The 20 Greatest Documentary Filmmakers of All Time

14. DA Pennebaker

Though part of the Direct Cinema movement popularized by Richard Leacock and the Maysles Brothers, DA Pennebaker remains a humble outsider, obscured both by his more famous contemporaries and the even more famous subjects he captured. Like the Maysles’, Pennebaker finds small nuances within performance; only for Pennebaker those performances are most famously on or around an actual stage.

Monterey Pop famously recorded the California festival within a calm intimacy that went unseen in the other two late 60s music festival films, Gimme Shelter and Woodstock. Though it may remains overshadowed, Monterey Pop delivered sequences, such as Janis Joplin’s startling rendition of Ball and Chain and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar burning, that helped make the singers into legends.

Don’t Look Back (1967)

Pennebaker’s two most powerful films came two decades apart and on the surface couldn’t be thematically further from each other. In 1968’s Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker filmed Bob Dylan on tour just as the elusive singer was transitioning from his roots in folk into an electric rock star. Hardly ever do we see Dylan actually performing on a stage, though much of the moments that occur inside town cars on the way to a show or in hotel rooms display a man who’s hidden behind a wall of his own mythic creation.

Likewise, 1992’s War Room goes on the campaign tour with Bill Clinton, a performer in his own right, only through Pennebaker’s lens he’s controlling that performance behind closed doors as much as he might in front of a crowd. We do see Clinton in shorts and a t-shirt, as if planning the war in the title, as the strategy of becoming president goes well beyond what the public gets to see. Like in Don’t Look Back, in War Room we hardly get to see the speeches, though we see the careful consideration that goes into creating the man who will be delivering them.


15. Godfrey Reggio

Godfrey Reggio’s the one documentary filmmaker whose work you may have seen without ever sitting down to watch in full. That’s because his sharp 35mm cinematography, with precise set-ups that capture the natural world slowly overtaken by the technology that now rules it, has been used in montages in almost every possible place.

The meanings behind Reggio’s obsessions are clear enough: In a society that loses any sense of calm and patience in pursuit of consumption and creation, people run the increasing risk of losing their souls. After his landmark Koyaanisqatsi, that used rapidity against the backdrop of a frantic Philip Glass score, Reggio created two sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, which deepened his gaze at the overwhelming takeover of technology throughout the globe.


In 2014, Reggio returned with a new documentary called The Visitors. While some of Reggio’s preoccupations remain, such as non-diagetic sound and thumping composed scores, he refrained from framing the world as a large all-encompassing space folding in on itself.

Instead, Reggio focuses on humans, or more specifically human faces. At times we see strangers crammed against one another, without recognition of the person right next to them, a group of people creating a collective though individually lost in the crowd. At times, the faces are highlighted, separated even from bodies and compared to primates, with whom we share not only features but a shrinking Earth. Reggio’s films are experiences, not meant to be easily understood or put into words. They are works that need to be as they are, visual and aural rides that make you feel the purpose before you can intellectualize it.


16. Alain Resnais

Holocaust films are familiar in cinemas today and have been for many years since the awful time took place. While there’s merit to many of the nonfiction films created about the Holocaust, including ones by other filmmakers on this list, there’s nothing quite like watching the brief and penetrating 32 minutes that make up Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. Shot only ten years after the defeat of the Nazis, in the concentration camps at Majdanek and Auschwitz, the film describes lives of prisoners in the camps.

Resnais uses a detached directness that creates horror via a cold, unflinching eye for detail. The result is the feeling of helplessness for a war fought, lives lost, and tragedy overcoming peace. Something sensuous is born out of harsh images because Resnais chooses to give us pieces not only of death but signs of life. Such as fingers grasped desperately around chain-link fence or mountains of hair, having been shaved off the heads of those kept in the camps, or shoes removed from their feet.


As Renais moved away from documentaries and into narrative, it may at first seem surprising that he became concerned less with reality than the nature of dreams. Some of his films, most notably Last Year of Marienbad, could be described as an experimental exercise into the trickery of human recollection. However, it’s not surprising, given Resnais’ interest in the nature of our mind’s eyes, that his films remained corporeal and continued to focus on the vagueness of thought.

Just as nonfiction, by its nature, is blurred by the subjectivity of truth, so too is memory and the interpretation of historical facts. In Hiroshima Mon Amor, the real events that unfolded in the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan literally lay soot on two lovers lost between their romance and the icy hand of a cultural tragedy.


17. Leni Riefenstahl

Enough has been written about Leni Riefenstahl’s connection to Nazism that it’s almost grating to hear how beyond the propagandizing of the cruelest act of the 20th Century is a distinct boundary-pushing artistry. So how then does one describe Riefenstahl without the basic examples that befit her, along with artistic standard-setter DW Griffith and Birth of a Nation? Firstly, Riefenstahl’s finest work may be the one that least obviously promotes Nazism.

This film is Olympia, which was less directly about puffing up the Fuhrer and more a celebration of athletic bodies, human perseverance, and a nation which was thought to be basing its methodology on each. Granted what Riefenstahl theoretically set out to capture was a disgusting example of Adolf Hitler’s belief in exterminating lesser humans. However, the end result not only put the history of sport on a pedestal but encouraged athleticism of all kinds, not least of which is a sequence that displays races by breathtaking African American sprinter Jesse Owens.


Regardless of subject matter, even if the subject matter is so damning it is inextricably linked to the overall conception of the film, Riefenstahl’s greatest contribution to documentary filmmaking was her willingness to push stylistic technique.

While setting up scenes and filming in ways that wouldn’t wait for something to occur at the expense of burning valuable film was commonplace since Flaherty filmed Nanook, Riefenstahl explored how construction could be less about recreating reality and more about elevating it. As such, her films introduced techniques now familiar amongst everything from political debates to sporting matches. The illusion of capturing reality is folded into the presentation, making a live event into entertainment.


18. Jean Rouch

If you know the cliff notes on Jean Rouch then you may have heard he invented Cinema Verite, as well as its slightly altered cousin Direct Cinema, which emphasized turning a camera on the subject without obvious edits or alterations. However, viewed now, Rouch’s films feel closer to the stunt documentaries and social experimentation that has grown in popularity recently, than to his Direct Cinema relatives.

Take for example perhaps Rouch’s most famous scene in his most famous film The Chronicle of Summer, wherein a handful of subjects, with which he has engaged on an extremely self-conscious level, view the footage he has been shooting for the film within the film itself.

The Chronicle of Summer

Rouch’s Summer may be his most famous work, because of how snuggly it adds a nonfiction piece into the Nouvelle Vague canon, but his earlier anthropological works are arguably more memorable for. Africa remains unknown territory for many outsiders, even if in recent decades attention has been paid. In films such as Moi, un noir, Les Maîtres Fous and Baby Ghana, Rogue was one of the first to turn his camera on to remote towns and villages in African nations, capturing civilizations still immune to the modernity of other countries, while also displaying centuries of tradition and community dependence.

Furthermore, Rouch’s films simmer with the threat of colonization whilst also showing people catching drifts of modern technology that is tempting for hunting and survival. However, a glimmer of imminent doom also infests these discoveries as we can see people on the verge of potentially losing the healthy community already lost elsewhere in the globe.


19. Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins is most well-known for creating docudramas which took actual events and dramatized them with often large casts in impactful locations. What sets apart Watkins’ work from a standard reenactment or period piece is how the elements of creation and reality fold into each other to force the viewer into seeing history differently. Watkins, however, is important also in allowing watchers to accept the breakdown of narrative as staunchly scripted and nonfiction as something that supposedly occurred.

As ever, truth remains as subjective as memory, so all we are left with is feeling. Watkins has ushered in a variety of other work, like in recent years with Boyhood, District 9, and the entire found footage movement, which plays on the audience’s conception of truth being nearer than fiction. Watkins also remains distant enough to take us through the steps of the minute drama that unfolds in real life.

Punishment Park

In Culloden, a film about the British Army’s 1745 suppression of the Scottish Jacobite rising, the camera enters battle scenes as if accompanying an actual modern war reporter covering the event in real time. With Edvard Munch, the great painter is portrayed in scenes of reenactment, while Watkins himself also offers voiceovers and occasionally actors will turn right to the camera as though they are delivering n interviews about their feelings of a given event. The effect doesn’t so much take us through Munch’s life as it allows us to experience it from within, thus providing an often melancholy real time take on a past period.

In War Game, a film that was both banned and won an Academy Award, Watkins indicts a nuclear war state of the world by using a news magazine coldness, presenting facts of horror in ways that are distanced and almost too easy to swallow. In reducing the gruesome effects of nuclear war to the barebones of death, destruction, and war (as a game), Watkins provides a less comfortable truth about fighting and carnage.

Documentaries are best when they allow their cinema to provide new way to look and their nonfiction elements to provide a new way to feel. Watkins’ approaches consistently manage to do both and the lasting importance of his work cannot be understated for it.


20. Frederick Wiseman

To some, he’s the Godfather of the observational documentary, but Frederick Wiseman doesn’t come to his films from the perspective of cinema so much as an intention to document institutions. From the interactions he captures, stories grow outward, challenging the very concept of narrative. The resulting six decades of work now stand as active documents of American staples throughout the passing of time.

As one realizes watching Wiseman’s often patient and long body of work is that as the world changes it often also stays just the same. The modesty of Wiseman begins with the titles of his films, such as High School, Welfare, Hospital, and even his most recent, National Gallery. There’s a hand crafting that enters into the final edit of the these films and, as ever, what’s being left out remains as important as what’s being left in, however, Wiseman as much as any nonfiction filmmaker, allows his film to unfold.

Titicut Follies

Perhaps his most damaging and well-known of his films, Titicut Follies looks at a State Mental Facility in Massachusetts, where inmates are treated with a condescension and callousness that puts their lives at risk. Here Wiseman may be making his most opinionated gesture, yet even as he portrays the cruelty of the workers against the inmates, he remains neutral, at a distance and unobtrusive.

There’s an irony that’s then born out of this objective style when you consider the film was banned from public display for over two decades because Massachusetts’ Superior Court argued it was misleading. If there’s a thread that runs through all of Wiseman’s work it’s that often the most unfiltered storytelling is the most affecting.

Author Bio: Zac Petrillo is a graduate of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. A New York City native, he currently writes and produces fiction and nonfiction film and television out of Los Angeles. Follow Zac on Twitter @zpetrillo.